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And Hides Her Somewhere In Herself, Safe From Harm

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It doesn't start raining until the bus passes the New York State border; Octavia sees the sign welcoming them only about ten minutes before the sky opens up, and even though she knows none of the water is getting on her through the window, she can't help feeling damp and cold and personally targeted.

Teenage narcissism, her mother would have said. Now even the weather is all about you. You never think about anyone but yourself. You're driving me to an early grave.

She can't blame herself for what happened, but, well. Her mom ended up in the early grave anyway, so at some point, it stops mattering how she ended up there. The final result is the same. Octavia is on a bus, headed to Albany to see her brother for the first time in eight years.

To live with her brother.

Albany isn't actually her final destination. Bellamy told the social worker he'd meet them there, because his town is too small to be on the bus route. Anya, said social worker, hasn't looked up from her phone the whole time they've been in transit. Not that Octavia wants to talk, but--it's weird, right? It's all really weird. But Anya probably does this all the time.

They have a layover when they switch buses in New York City, but it's still raining when they get to Albany. The bus station is gray and unpleasant and honestly just discouraging. She follows Anya off the bus without looking up, afraid of what she'll see.

She was six, the last time she saw her brother, and he was sixteen. She thinks she'll recognize him, but how can she be sure? She's not sure if she's more afraid she'll know him, or she won't.

In her memory, Bellamy is the best brother ever. He was always there for her, always took care of her, always had time for her. He picked her up from school and listened to her talk about her day. He made her lunch and braided her hair and loved her.

And then his dad showed up and threatened to sue for custody, and Mom gave him away instead of dealing with the court case. Just let his dad take him. Octavia kept telling herself he'd be back, once he turned eighteen, once he stopped belonging to his father. That he wouldn't leave her behind.

But he never came back. She never heard from him at all. By the time her mother died, she'd given up on ever seeing her brother again, and when social services took her in, she was prepared for four years of foster care, until she could just take care of herself, like she has been since he left.

Instead, they found Bellamy.

Anya gets her bag for her, and then she's back to jabbing at her phone. "We're on time, so I assume your brother is here, but--"

When she finally lets herself check the crowd, she spots him instantly. He's looking around too, and she realizes with a lurch that he doesn't recognize her. The difference between six and fourteen is huge, but he looks almost the same, a little older, his hair shaggier, curling more than it used to, but otherwise Bellamy. Her big brother.

He's wearing a black peacoat and jeans, glasses instead of contacts, and it opens up a hole in her that never really healed, just the sight of him. He looks so grown up.

He startles, checks his phone and picks it, and Octavia says, "I see him," before Anya can tell him they're here. "Over there, in the black coat." If she listens hard, she can hear his voice, just faintly. Hi, Anya? Are you guys--

When his eyes hit her again, she holds up her hand, this tiny little wave, and he just stares at her for a long minute, his expression so raw it hurts.

And then he's across the space between them and hugging her.

"Hey, O," he says, against her hair.

It doesn't make her cry. It doesn't. But it does make her sniffle. No one's called her O since he left. She still remembers the last time he hugged her. Goodbye, O. I love you. Be good for Mom.

She didn't really listen, but she tried for a couple years.

"Hey," he says again, like he doesn't have any other words. "I'm really sorry about Mom."

She tenses and lets go of him, feels a vindictive stab of triumph when he looks guilty. So she drives it home. "Not sorry enough to come to the funeral."

He wets his lips. "I made a decision," he says. "It would have cost me at least three hundred bucks to get there, between the bus and a hotel and--I decided we needed the money for stuff for you. For your room and--whatever. I haven't bought anything yet except the bed and a dresser, I figured we could go and get stuff after this. I borrowed my friend's truck, so we can--" He lets out a harsh breath. "I'm sorry I didn't come. I didn't know how to come, even if it wasn't--"

"Excuse me," says Anya. "Sorry to interrupt. But I need you to sign some things, Bellamy."

"Yeah, of course. O, are you hungry? Thirsty? Do you need anything?"

"Octavia," she says.

"What?"

"My name is Octavia."

"Oh, uh--sorry." He rubs the back of his neck. "Well, um. If you want to get something to eat or anything, let me know. Anya, we can just grab a table in the food court, get this out of the way?"

Anya's looking between them, cool, and Octavia realizes suddenly that she'll be gone soon. Anya is a Maryland social worker, and she's going home. She'll be assigned someone new here. Anya's going to leave, and it will just be her and her brother. She won't have anyone else she knows in this state. In her whole life.

"Of course," says Anya.

Bellamy fishes his wallet out of his jeans and gives her a twenty dollar bill. "Get a snack or something, I know was a long trip." He glances around, frowning. "And stay in sight? This place is really sketchy."

She wants to smile, but she bites back on it. "I'll stay close," she says. And then, because--she's living with him, "Do you want anything?"

"Just a coffee would be great. Thanks, O. Uh, Octavia."

She gets herself a shitty hot chocolate and Bellamy a probably just as shitty coffee, and a coffee for Anya while she's at it. They've finishing by the time she gets back, and Bellamy is smiling, thanking Anya. But his attention is on Octavia, always. It's like he doesn't know how to stop looking at her, and she can't breathe around the feeling of his eyes on her.

"You ready to go?" he asks. "Honestly, this place gives me the creeps."

She swallows hard. "Yeah."

"Do you need a ride anywhere?" he adds, to Anya. "Hotel, or--"

"No, I'm fine. Thank you." She turns her attention to Octavia. "Do you need anything else?"

She doesn't know where to start, so she just says, "No. Thank you for bringing me."

"Your social worker here will be Indra Birch. She's been in touch with you?"

"Yeah, we've got an appointment to see her tomorrow," says Bellamy. He offers his hand. "Thanks for all your help."

"Of course. Have a good rest of the day."

"You too," says Bellamy.

And then they're alone.

"So, uh," he says. "Like I said, I bought a bed, in case you were too wiped out to go to the mall, but if you want, we can go get stuff. Decorations or whatever. They sold your old furniture and sent me the cash, so--I've got a decent budget. Is that your only bag?"

"I don't need much," she says.

"We can get you--more, I guess. I, uh--my friend Clarke said she'd meet us? I figured you might want a girl around. For--I don't know. Girl stuff?" He runs his hand through his hair. "Fuck. I'm sorry. I don't know what I'm doing, so just tell me when I'm doing it wrong and I'll try to do better, okay? I'm so fucking happy you're here. Except, uh, you know. Not that I'm happy that--I just missed you," he finally says.

"Then why didn't you ever call?" she bursts out. "Or come visit? Or--" She shuts her mouth. She doesn't want to care about this. She doesn't want to ask.

"I didn't know how. I tried getting in touch with Mom, but she wouldn't talk to me after the first time. She said I'd made my choice, and--fuck, it wasn't my choice, okay?"

"You got out," she says, soft.

"I know," he says, just as soft. "My dad was an asshole too, if it helps."

"Was?"

"Still is. But--we haven't talked since I finished college. I didn't want him to take me. I didn't want to leave you alone. But I didn't think I could just come back when Mom wouldn't even talk to me. I didn't even know if you still lived in the old place. I went by once and I couldn't tell."

"We moved a lot," she admits. They always had; Mom never did well with landlords.

He nods, and she can see his jaw working. "Well, uh--we should get going. To the mall. And then home."

"Home," she echoes. The word doesn't feel real. Nothing's felt real, since Mom died. "Okay."

*

"So, uh--you're in ninth grade, right?" he asks. "Fourteen?"

He sounds so awkward she can't even be annoyed. "Yeah."

"I don't teach freshmen, so you're safe from me. But if you take art, you might have Clarke. She has some freshmen."

She swallows. "You teach high school?"

"Oh, uh, yeah. I forgot you didn't--I do US history and government, so--juniors and seniors. I'm going to bring you by the school day after tomorrow and get you set up. I've got a sub tomorrow so we can get you settled in at my place first." He clears his throat. "Sorry you had to leave school in the middle of the year."

"It's not even November. I hadn't made that many friends yet."

"It's a pretty decent school," he says. "A lot smaller than your old one. I know having your brother be a teacher sucks, but at least by the time your friends are starting to be in my class, you'll already know them, so it won't be weird. Or it'll be weird in a totally different way."

She has to smile a little. "Clarke is the one who's meeting us at the mall, right?"

"Yeah. We started teaching at the same time, so we kind of bonded. Young, lost teachers clinging to each other for dear life, basically. She's cool, you'll, uh--" He clears his throat, and Octavia feels her heart twist up. "I think you guys will probably like each other," he says, so careful. Because he doesn't know anything about her, not really. He doesn't know what she likes anymore.

It feels more awkward than if they were strangers, honestly.

There's a blonde woman waiting outside the mall, hands stuffed in her pockets, bouncing on her feet. She cocks her head at Bellamy and then turns her attention to Octavia, giving her a friendly, if slightly awkward smile.

"Hi, you must be Bellamy's sister. He talks about you all the time."

"How?" she asks, genuinely startled. It's been eight years.

"It's part of who he is," she says, easy. "He's a big brother. He can't help it."

"Shut up, Clarke."

"You are." She wets her lips. "I'm really sorry about your mom."

"Thanks," she says, because she doesn't know what else to say. It's not like she's sad, not exactly. Mostly, she feels numb. She loved her mother, but--not like she used to love her brother. She didn't love her because her mother was good to her, just because she was her mother, and you love your mother. It's how you're supposed to feel about your parents. So it was probably love.

"So, stuff," Clarke says, overly cheerful. "I hear the best way to deal with pain is to fill the empty void of your life with stuff."

"You know you're actually the last person in the world I would ask to give me a pep talk," Bellamy remarks.

Clarke grins at him. "And yet you asked me to come help. Your brother doesn't really have many friends," she adds to Octavia.

"Quality over quantity," says Bellamy.

"Aww, you think I'm quality."

"I meant Raven and Wells." He clears his throat. "I, uh--like I said, I got you a bed. And a dresser, I figured you probably didn't have really strong preferences about those. And there are clean sheets on the bed, so, yeah. I know you've had a long day, so whenever you want to hit the food court, go home, and pass out, let me know."

She doesn't know what to say, but apparently Bellamy basically called Clarke in to deal with awkward silences, because she picks up the conversation easily. "What did you bring, Octavia?"

"Clothes. Toothbrush. That kind of stuff."

"You took pictures of the room, right?" Clarke asks Bellamy.

"Yeah." He pulls out his phone, and Octavia's stomach twists again when he flips through the photos. There's a twin bed, neatly made, a sturdy wooden dresser, and a couple bookshelves. There are books on there. There's a blue rug on the floor that might be a bathmat. "Everything is negotiable," he says. "I just, uh--I wanted it to look nice. When you got here."

"It's fine," she says, through a lump in her throat.

"I was working with what I had."

"It's nice," Clarke says. "I think we should get some stuff for the walls. Maybe some brighter sheets? But that's just me. Is that a bathmat?"

"It doesn't have to be a bathmat," Bellamy grumbles. "It can be whatever it wants."

"Sure it can. I think we should start with wall decorations," Clarke declares. "Some posters or something. And a real rug."

"Everyone's a critic. What do you think, Octavia?"

His breath still catches on her name; he still wants to call her O.

"I like the bathmat," she says, soft.

"See?" Bellamy tells Clarke. "I'm a provider. But yeah, we can get some posters or something. Maybe some nicer sheets. You can pick out a comforter. More pillows? I don't know."

"We'll just go nuts in Target," Clarke says. "I love going nuts in Target." She glances at Octavia. "I like to deal with awkward situations by being aggressively normal. Let me know if that's weird for you and I'll stop."

"Good disclaimer," Bellamy says, and it's amazing, that Octavia can still tell he's nervous, after all these years.

"It's all weird for me," she says. "Let's go to Target."

In an ideal world, it would be like a shopping montage in a movie, but it's Clarke being aggressively normal, Bellamy trying to guess what Octavia might like, and Octavia still feeling mostly numb, because she doesn't know how to feel anything else. But it's not bad. It's surreal and more than a little awkward, but she manages to find things she wants, things she'll like, and she doesn't feel like she's completely lost.

"Does she have a desk?" Clarke asks. "Did you just leave yours in there?"

Bellamy flushes. "Moved it into my room. I didn't really need an office, it was mostly empty anyway."

"Your office?" It somehow hadn't occurred to her, that Bellamy wouldn't just have a spare room he wasn't using. He must have rearranged his whole life to do this, and she just--

She knew he would.

"Like I said, I don't need it. Most of the time I just do grading on the couch watching Netflix. The desk is nice, so I'll keep it, but I honestly barely ever use it." He glances at Octavia. "I used to have a roommate, but he moved in with his girlfriend a couple months ago and I never found a new one, so, yeah." He rubs the back of his neck. "Do you need any clothes? Your shoes okay? Coat? It's going to get cold soon."

"I'm okay, Bell," she says. The nickname feels natural, and she lets it stay, instead of correcting herself. "I don't need anything else today."

"Okay, so--we can check out? And get dinner in town? Somewhere, uh, less shitty than the food court. We don't have a ton of options, but we can go to a real restaurant." He glances at Clarke. "I'll treat you too, I owe you for giving up your Sunday."

"It's only like five, you know you're not actually seventy, right?" She looks at Octavia, like she's hoping for an indication of what she should do. Octavia finds she doesn't really know either.

"We could go to your place first and drop the stuff off," she offers. "Maybe put the desk together. You could still stay for dinner, though," she adds to Clarke. She should be nice to her brother's girlfriend. It's not like she has any reason to dislike her, from what she's seen. "If you want. I don't mind."

"You can come watch me fail to put a desk together," Bellamy says. He sounds a little hopeful.

"Yeah, I really can't say no to that. I give you half an hour before you give up and call Raven."

"Shut up, I'm competent. Uh, bathroom stuff?" he adds, to Octavia. "Shampoo? Conditioner? Deodorant? Towel? I've got one you can use, but if you want your own--"

"Go get in line, dork," Clarke says. "We'll grab shampoo and meet you." Once they're in the toiletries section, she adds, "I thought if I asked if you had pads in front of him, he might actually di--pass out."

She bites back on a smile. "Yeah, probably. Do you think if we brought some back, he'd still pass out?"

"Fifty-fifty." She's quiet as she looks at the shelves full of bright shampoo bottles, but then she says, "Look, I know you don't know me, but--if you need anything, you can ask. Anything you can't talk to Bellamy about, or--just absolutely anything at all. I'll give you my number. You can call any time."

"Really?"

"He loves you," she says. "And he's my best friend. So yeah. Any time."

"Your best friend?"

"Sad but true."

"I thought you guys were, um. I thought you were his girlfriend."

"Oh, no. Not his girlfriend." She looks like she might say more about it, but all that comes out is, "Seriously, pads? Tampons? Awkward stuff that Bellamy won't be able to look at?"

"Not right now. But I might ask you to take me later. Just so Bellamy doesn't have to deal with it."

"Like I said, any time."

They get shampoo and conditioner and the soap she likes, all of which Octavia brought with her, but it's not like it goes bad, and Bellamy seems to feel like he hasn't bought her enough.

She hears him murmur, "You can just go home," to Clarke on their way out.

"I still like hanging out with you," Clarke says. "Really, Bellamy. I'm having fun. I want to come."

"Thanks, though," he says. "Really."

Octavia steals a glance back, sees Clarke bump her shoulder against his. "Always."

*

Bellamy has a pretty nice place, the first floor of a small house. There's a yard with a tree in front, and he says a family of three lives upstairs, two parents and their three-year-old daughter. It's clean in a way that suggests to Octavia that he worked at it, like he's maybe spent several days scrubbing every surface he can until it shines.

"There's a cat around somewhere," he says. "She's kind of shy, but once she figures out we're not leaving, she'll get bored and wander back in. Kitchen's back there, bathroom here. This is my room," he says, pushing a door open. His room is neat too, a large bed and the desk, nothing fancy, but--warm. A comfortable kind of room, "And you're in here."

It looks how she knew it would, from the pictures. About the same size as her old room, but the windows are bigger, and it's cleaner. And it feels better, somehow. It was made for her, so maybe that's it. Her old room had been hers for her whole life, and it was hers, the only space she had where she felt totally safe, but--it had just happened.

Bellamy put this together, tried to make it as nice as he could, because he wants her to feel welcome. And by some miracle, she does.

Clarke helps her hang up the posters they got and change the comforter on the bed, while Bellamy puts together the desk. His cat, a gray tabby named Atalanta, comes in to investigate after a while, and Octavia gets her to sniff her hand and butt up against her a little, before Bellamy swears at the desk and spooks her.

They end up ordering takeout, and they eat it on Bellamy's couch.

"I'll cook tomorrow," he promises. "I can cook."

"I know you can cook," she says. "I remember."

"Yeah, well. I can cook better than before. Way more recipes." He clears his throat. "We'll go shopping tomorrow, get you--"

"Bell," she says. "It's fine. You're doing fine." She collects everyone's plates. "I'm going to rinse these off and then go sleep? I got up really early today, and--"

"Yeah," he says. "Of course. If you need anything else and you can't find it, just wake me up." He wets his lips. "I, um. I'm sorry about Mom. But I'm really glad you're here."

"Thanks for agreeing to take me. It was nice to meet you, Clarke. Thanks for helping out."

"Any time," says Clarke. "Sleep well."

The room feels safe and warm when she goes back into it; there's a lamp on the desk, spilling warm light everywhere, and the blue bathmat makes her almost sick with happiness she can't quite understand. There's a lock on the door, one that looks newly installed. There's fresh paint around it, and Octavia closes her eyes, rests her forehead against the firm wood. Bellamy put in a lock for her.

She keeps the door closed but unlocked, kneels down to look through the books on the shelves. They're more familiar than she would have expected, books she knows. They're clearly used, probably bought recently, but--she used to sit in his lap and make him read aloud to her from whatever he was reading, and the titles are familiar.

He's trying so hard, and she doesn't know how to deal with it. Her brother still loves her. Her brother has probably always loved her. He's really happy to have her.

Her fingers trace the spines, and she pulls down a Tamora Pierce when she hits it. He was reading her one of these when he left. She hadn't realized she remembered. He's got all of them, the whole series, and she nearly breaks down crying, just looking at them.

But she didn't cry at the funeral, so she's not going to cry over this. She takes a deep breath and takes the book to her bed instead.

It's not like her old bed, the sheets unfamiliar, the mattress firmer. It's new, but she feels like she could get used to it.

She doesn't know when she falls asleep, but she wakes up with the book on her chest to the sound of something at the door. It's not very late, she doesn't think, and it's confirmed when she hears Bellamy outside, speaking softly.

"Don't be an asshole," he's saying. "Door's closed, cat. Deal with it." There's a plaintive mewling, and then the sound of her brother making soothing noises. "That's O's room now. If she doesn't want you in there, you don't get to go in. Come on."

She waits until she hears his steps going down the hallway until she lets herself get out of bed and change into her pajamas. It's harder to drift off when she's actually trying, lights off and eyes closed. She's exhausted, but she can't stop thinking. It's a whole new life; she doesn't know how to imagine tomorrow, or the day after, or the next week. She can't picture the future, but she can't stop not picturing it.

But she must drift off at some point, because the next time her eyes open, it's morning, and there's a cat howling outside the door again.

"Jesus fucking Christ," she hears, and more yowling as Bellamy picks up his cat. "Fine. You can be an asshole outside."

Octavia rolls over to check her phone, finds it's almost ten. It's disconcerting, to be sleeping so late on a Monday, even if she deserves it. It's been a long, shitty few days.

For a moment, she debates, torn between getting dressed and just wandering out in her pajamas. And then she feels stupid, because this is her place now, and she wants to shower before she gets dressed. She always showers before she gets dressed. So she just opens the door and goes into the living room, like she would if she was at home. Bellamy's there, on the couch, wearing pajamas himself. He's got a pile of papers in his lap, but he smiles at the sight of her.

"Hey, good morning. Did you sleep okay?"

"Yeah."

"Cool, I'm glad. I've got cereal and stuff, or I can make pancakes or french toast. I don't know what you like doing for breakfast. Do you drink coffee? Are you too young to drink coffee? I tried to google if you were too young and then I realized I didn't care. If you want to drink coffee, you can."

"Coffee's gross."

"Good, yeah, keep thinking that. I think you probably shouldn't drink it. Other food?"

"What kind of cereal?"

He flushes. "Multi-Grain Cheerios. And I bought Berry Berry Kix, in case you still--in case."

She didn't cry when she heard her mother was dead; she didn't cry at the funeral. She didn't cry when she thought she'd go into foster care, or when she heard her brother would take her, or when she left Baltimore. She didn't cry when he hugged her, or when she saw the stupid bathmat, or the books.

But Bellamy buying fucking Berry Berry Kix, because he remembers what cereal she ate when she was six? That's what does it. She buries her face against his chest and loses it, embarrassingly so. She sobs like she's not sure she's ever sobbed, like a dam breaking. She can't stop, even as she tries, even as she knows it's too much. Even though her mother died, it doesn't feel like she should have this many tears in her. Aurora Blake doesn't deserve so much heartache.

When she finally catches her breath, one of Bellamy's hands is on her back, and the other is in her hair. She's made a mess of his shoulder, but he's just saying, "I know," over and over.

For the first time in a while, she thinks maybe someone does know.

"Sorry," she says, pulling herself back awkwardly.

"It's okay," he says. "I don't mind." He squeezes her, gentle, and then lets go. "Come on, I'll make pancakes. Do you want tea or something? You got hot chocolate yesterday, but I don't have any."

"Tea is good." She sniffles. "I'm going to take a shower? While you're cooking?"

"Yeah, go ahead. It's pretty easy to figure out. Shouldn't have any trouble."

"I think I can operate a shower, yeah. And change your shirt, it's gross now!" she calls over her shoulder.

"Whose fault is that?" he calls back, easy, and suddenly, she can breathe.

*

"I traded my car to Raven for her truck for the weekend, so we're gonna switch back and check out downtown, and then we can go shopping." He pauses, drumming his fingers on the steering wheel. "Okay, I don't want you getting your hopes up, so assume by downtown, I mean, like, two streets. Tops. It's gonna be a big change, after Baltimore."

"How did you end up here?" she asks. "I thought your dad was in Boston."

"He was, yeah. I went to UMass for college, the one in Amherst. I liked the kind of small-town vibe, so I applied for teaching positions where I thought I'd get that. Plus, it's cheaper. There are more jobs in cities, but the cost of living is lower here. And I like it a lot. Close enough to civilization I can go if I want, but mostly quiet. But if you hate it, I can try to find something else for next year."

She startles. "Really?"

"There are high schools everywhere," he says, like it's not a big deal. "Wouldn't be hard to find another."

"Thanks, Bell." She can't help adding, "No one calls you Bell anymore, do they?"

"You were the only one who ever did, yeah." He clears his throat. "It's fine. You can--I don't mind."

It feels like the time to tell him he can call her O again, like he used to, but the words stick in her throat, so she doesn't say anything, and he starts telling her what they're passing, where they'd turn to go to the high school, to Albany. She hadn't paid much attention last night, too tired and overwhelmed, so everything feels new, now. She's a city girl; it's strange driving past so much green.

It's only about fifteen minutes to their destination, a body shop called Reyes Motors. Bellamy parks the truck in the back and leads her in. It's loud and busy and smells like oil, but he knows exactly where he's going, finds the right car and knocks on the hood without missing a beat.

"What?" says a woman's voice from under the car.

"I brought your truck back."

The woman who slides out from under the truck is gorgeous, hair in a tight ponytail, smudges of grease on her skin enhancing her looks, like they're purposeful and artistic. Her grin is bright and white.

"This your sister?"

"This is her. Raven, Octavia. Octavia, this is Raven. Best mechanic in town. Stole my roommate."

"Hey, maybe if you just put out, he would have stayed."

"I knew I was doing something wrong."

Raven stands and wipes her hand off with a rag before she offers it to Octavia. She shakes, returns Raven's friendly smile as best she can.

"Nice to meet you," she says. "Thanks for loaning us your truck."

"No problem. You getting settled in okay? Got big plans for today?"

"Downtown tour, grocery shopping, meeting with the new social worker. Non-stop excitement," says Bellamy. "Clarke made me promise to have all you guys over for dinner sometime this week so O--Octavia can get some more backup for when I fail as a guardian."

"Yeah, that sounds right."

"You guys couldn't pretend I'm a competent adult for, like, the first month I've got her?" he grumbles. "Just to make it look like my friends actually like me."

"Nah, let her know what she's in for."

"I'm way more on top of my life than Clarke is."

"You act like that's something to brag about. It's like saying your city is doing better that Detroit. Way to clear the bar for basic adulthood."

"Thanks. Is your boyfriend around? He likes me better."

"Yeah, he's in the back. He's got your keys, so you need to find him anyway." She waits until Bellamy's gone to track down her boyfriend before she gives Octavia a contemplative look. "I assume Clarke already gave you the I'll be your big sister because I want to marry your big brother talk?"

"Basically, yeah. Not in those exact words."

"Yeah, well, they're in denial. But if you ever can't talk to her, you can talk to me, okay?" She pauses, and then adds, "My dad wasn't around and my mom was shitty. I don't know what happened since Bellamy left, but he's told me enough that I can guess it sucked before, and sucked a lot more after. Bellamy's family, so you're family. All of us think that. You're not just getting him." Octavia's throat closes again, and Raven nods, like she wasn't really expecting a response. "I assume you're leaving, but if you ever want to learn how to take apart a car, come by any time."

"Thanks," she finally gets out.

"Sure."

She meets Raven's boyfriend, Wells, who makes fun of Bellamy less than his other friends, and then they grab Bellamy's beat-up Volvo and he drives her through downtown. It's cute and small, makes her teeth hurt a little. It feels more like something out of a movie or TV show than a real place. Quaint.

It's not where she pictured her brother. She doesn't know what she would have come up with, if someone had asked her what happened to him, but small-town high-school history teacher isn't it.

Not that it doesn't make sense for him. He's good with kids, always liked school as an escape. He worked so hard because he knew they didn't have any money.

He'd always said he was going to grow up and take care of her.

They go to the social work office in Troy before they go shopping, since they don't have time to drop the food off in between anyway. Indra Birch is a stern, no-nonsense woman, and Octavia is relieved to like her on sight. She needs someone like this, someone who doesn't know her brother. Someone who's hers, before they're his. Just in case it goes wrong.

After, they go grocery shopping and unpack, and then, abruptly, there's nothing. They're just back in the apartment, with the rest of their lives ahead of them.

"So, uh--weirdly, I have no idea what teenage girls do, apart from complain to me about how I'm giving them too much homework."

"It's not your job to keep me occupied. I'm used to entertaining myself."

He winces, and she feels a little bad. "Yeah, I guess you would be." His tongue darts out to wet his lips. "I'll be home more than she was, I'm pretty sure. But you don't have to feel obligated to hang out with me. I've got, uh--some video games? Netflix is set up, Hulu. Basic cable. I can work through anything, so feel free to do whatever you want. I'm going to be grading essays. If you get hungry, there are snacks. I usually start dinner around 6:30."

"Okay," she says, and goes to her room to grab the Tamora Pierce again. She can see him checking the title, smiling, and it makes her fingers tingle.

"I'm not sure those were totally appropriate for your age level, honestly. She starts having sex later," he remarks, after a pause. "Also, don't date guys who are hitting on you when you're eleven and they're like twenty."

"Thanks for the tip." She worries her lip. "You read them?"

"I figured you might have, so--if we saw each other again, we'd have something to talk about."

"When did you think that was going to happen?" she asks, and it doesn't come out harsh, by some miracle.

He pauses, and then he grabs his laptop, pulls up his email account. He puts Aurora into the search bar and clicks her name. The screen fills up with emails, subject lines like Spring break April 20-24. The most recent one was sent in July, with the subject line, In Baltimore Aug 6-10. When he clicks in, she sees it's a quick note: Hi Mom, I'm going to a conference in August, would love to see you and O. Let me know when you're free. I'm flexible on dates, if those don't work.

She isn't going to cry again. She's not.

"She never wrote back?" she asks instead.

"No. I tried calling a few times, but I guess she--I don't know if she changed your number or just stopped paying for the landline. She picked up the first time, but then--" He shrugs. "She said you weren't home, told me it wasn't any of my business what you guys did. I know--look, I don't even know how much it sucked for you. I know she was a shitty mom, and I know she didn't look out for you. And I'm sorry. I tried, but that doesn't fix it. I did everything I could, but I'm sorry I couldn't do more."

"It's not your fault," Octavia says.

He snorts. "Yeah, I know. Fuck asshole parents, right?"

"Yeah." She looks down at the open book in her hands. "It wasn't that bad, most of the time. Just--lonely. Not how it was supposed to be." And then, she forces out, "I always thought you'd come."

His voice sounds just as thick as hers. "I know. I thought so too."

*

Bellamy takes her to the office at the school, introduces her to the receptionist, and gets her squared away doing paperwork while he goes to deal with his own stuff.

She's not really surprised when Clarke sits down next to her ten minutes after Bellamy leaves. "You should definitely take art. I hear the art teacher is awesome. See if you can get last-period art, it's the best period."

"I don't think I get to decide that."

"Well, any art's good. And your other electives are way less cool. Who wants to be in band?"

She has to smile. "Are you supposed to trash-talk the other electives?"

"Yeah, I could definitely take the band teacher in a fight. I'm not worried."

"Did my brother seriously send you to watch me?"

"Nope, I'm freelancing. I have a free period first, he doesn't."

Octavia pauses. "Did he really talk about me?"

"Yeah. It took me a while to figure out what happened, honestly, because he just acts so natural about it. Like I said, it's part of who he is." Her grin is sudden and bright. "He told me you were an artist."

Octavia smiles too. "Everyone's an artist when they're six."

"You can still be an artist. Electives, I'm telling you."

"I picked art," she says.

"Awesome. Definitely the right choice."

"Do your students call you Clarke, or do you have a last name?"

"I generally go by Ms. Griffin," she says. "But I won't mind if you mess it up."

She's still there when Bellamy gets back to finish up, but he doesn't comment on her presence, just sits down next to them with his usual pile of paperwork.

It feels like the kind of thing she could get used to.

When she gets her schedule, she has art last period; she shows Clarke, and Clarke offers her hand for a high-five.

*

"So, are you in witness protection?"

"If she is, she can't tell us."

"Okay, but if you were in witness protection, you could tell us. We're trustworthy."

"So trustworthy."

Octavia looks between the two boys with some bemusement. They're cute; one is Asian, with straight black hair and a small, almost private smile, the kind of smile that says he's got a joke he wants to share, and the other is white, with goggles on his forehead and an almost manic expression.

She was sent to sit at their table in history, and she's not sure it's safe.

"I'm not in witness protection."

"I feel like that's what someone in witness protection would say," says Goggles.

"Definitely."

The problem is that the truth is awkward. But putting off telling them won't make it less awkward. "My mom died," she says. "I came to live with my brother." And, just to get it over with, "He's a history teacher? Mr. Blake."

The boys exchange a look. The Asian one assesses her, and then says, "You know, that would be a great way to throw people off the witness protection thing."

Octavia lets out a surprised giggle, and both of them grin.

"I'm Monty," says the boy. "And this is Jasper," he adds, tilting his head toward Goggles. "Do you have your schedule on you?"

She hands it over, and both of them lean over it with interest. "Okay, so you've got gym with us next," says Jasper. "Geometry with Monty--"

"Latin with me and Harper."

"I don't know anyone who has Earth Sciences sixth," says Jasper, making a face. "Or art last. You should have gone for art fifth, that's when I've got it."

"But we're both in your English class," Monty concludes. "Sorry you're Mr. Blake's sister."

"Why?"

They exchange another look; she gets the impression they do that a lot. Their own private language. "He's, um--" Monty starts.

"Popular," Jasper supplies, at the same time Monty says, "Hot."

"So you're going to want to be selective about your friends," Jasper continues, when Octavia just raises her eyebrows.

"Yeah, some number of unscrupulous people are going to want to befriend you just to get close to your hot brother," says Monty. "But we wanted to befriend you before we found out about him, so you know you can trust us."

"Also, I don't care that your brother is hot."

"I only care a little."

"He cares a lot," says Jasper. "He--"

Monty covers his mouth. "The important thing is that we're here to help. It's gotta be tough coming into school at the end of October. Especially a school like this."

"A school like this?" she asks.

"Small town," says Monty.

"Everyone's known each other since birth, basically."

"Literally, for us. Born in the same hospital."

"But I'm a day older," says Jasper.

"And five years less mature." The teacher passes, and Monty looks down at their activity sheet like he cares about it and is actually going to work on it. It's not convincing.

Unfortunately, the teacher is interested in something else. "You're Mr. Blake's little sister?" she asks.

Of course the history teacher would know Bellamy. All the teachers will know him. And not all in the fun, friendly way Clarke does. Mrs. Granger is at least sixty, and she probably has weird maternal feelings she wants to pass on.

"Yeah, I am," she says.

"I'm so sorry about your mother."

"Thanks."

"If you'd like any additional tutoring sessions to catch up, please let me know. Your brother already requested the materials to review, but I'm sure he's busy."

It makes her flush every time someone mentions, casual and easy, how much Bellamy is doing for her. Part of her wants to be resentful, like this is too little, too late. But it's not.

And he never gave up. Never.

"Thank you, Mrs. Granger."

"Of course." Her eyes flick across the table. "I do expected these will be completed by the end of the period, Jasper, Monty."

"And they will be."

"Absolutely will be."

"You're going to be so impressed."

Her smile is fond, and Octavia smiles too.

It's a weird day, over all. She's not lost in most of her classes, so much as just kind of out of step. They're in the middle of discussing Lord of the Flies in English, and she already read it, but she's at a loss in geometry, since she was in algebra before. She was doing chemistry at her old school, and Earth Sciences feels like a demotion, but it's hard to care that much. She can do this in her sleep.

Every class, the teacher has their own explanation for her; and that's definitely the worst part, having it be her first day of class and no one else's.

Clarke's class last period feels like a relief, not just because Clarke is familiar. She does like art.

"Hey, O," Clarke says, casual and easy, by way of greeting, and her heart lurches. She hasn't managed a response when Clarke corrects herself. "Sorry, Octavia. Your brother taught me bad habits, I'll stop. You can take this easel. We're doing still-life drawing today, pretty simple. Look at the fruit. Draw the fruit."

"Aren't you supposed to teach us how to draw the fruit?"

"I like to build up suspense." She smiles. "How's your first day going?"

"Weird."

"Yeah, I bet. Making any friends?"

"Monty and Jasper?"

"Green and Jordan?"

"I don't know, probably. I didn't get their last names. Jasper said he had you fifth."

"Green and Jordan, yeah. You could do worse, probably." The bell rings, and she gives Octavia a last smile before she goes to the front of the class. "Okay, it's last period and there are like five hundred people in the entire school, so I assume everyone knows we have a new student. If you don't, this is Octavia. If she's got questions, answer them. Don't be jerks." She nods, mostly to herself. "Okay, that's it. We're done. Let's draw some fruit."

It's a nice way to end the day, relaxing and easy, and when she gathers her things at the final bell, Clarke says, "Did your brother tell you which classroom is his?"

"Oh, um. No."

"Of course he didn't. If you come back here after you get your stuff, I'll show you."

"I can take the bus."

Clarke doesn't look impressed. "Which bus?"

Octavia pauses, because of course she has no idea. "I'll see you in a few minutes."

Monty and Jasper find her at her locker. "Which bus are you on?"

"My brother's car, I think. I forgot to figure out which bus I take, so Clarke just said she'd take me to his room."

"Clarke?" asks Jasper.

"Ms. Griffin," Octavia corrects, and the boys exchange a look.

"Wait, is that really a thing?" Jasper asks, leaning in close, like he's asking for a secret. "I heard a rumor they were--"

Monty tugs his arm. "Dude, I don't wanna miss the bus." He glances at Octavia. "But keep us posted. This is important intel."

"They're not dating," Octavia says.

"Yeah, but--" Jasper starts, and Monty tugs him.

"Seriously, I'm going home on time for once, don't ruin this for me."

"Maybe Mr. Blake would give us a ride."

Monty pauses to consider that, but shakes his head. "No, because if he doesn't, we have to wait for the late bus. I'm not risking it. Octavia will fill us in tomorrow. Because we're friends."

"Who aren't using me because of my brother at all," Octavia says.

"Not even slightly," says Monty. "See you tomorrow!"

Clarke's talking to an attractive dark-skinned guy when Octavia gets back to her room, leaning over a portfolio with him.

"Hey, give me a sec?" Clarke says, giving her a smile. "Working on a piece for a contest, won't take long."

"I have to get to practice, so, yes. Don't take long," says the guy. He offers Octavia a very nice smile, and she smiles back. It's the easiest smile she's managed in the last few days. "You're Octavia?" he asks.

"How small is this school?"

Clarke snorts. "I told him you were coming. I don't think you're legendary yet. This is Lincoln. Lincoln, Octavia."

"Nice to meet you. I can probably just find my brother's room, if you--"

"Nope," says Clarke. She grins at Lincoln. "Seriously, I think this is it. You've drawn and redrawn enough. It's perfect. Submit it."

"You think?"

"If I had a single criticism left, I would tell you. It's amazing, Lincoln."

He ducks his head, smiling. "Thanks, Ms. Griffin."

"Hey, you did the work. I just got to tell you what you did wrong. I really had the easy job here. Get to practice."

Lincoln gives her another smile on his way out, and Octavia doesn't watch him go. But--he's cute. In a very different way from how Jasper and Monty are cute.

"Okay, come on," says Clarke. "Your brother has last period free, so he usually just doesn't notice the last bell and will stay in his room until he realizes he's hungry."

Octavia considers and then says, "My new friends wanted to know if you guys were dating, so if you're trying to be subtle, it's not working."

"We're also not dating. So, really, your friends have overactive imaginations. Which we already knew, because your friends are Jasper Jordan and Monty Green."

"It's not even November and Monty's not in your class," she grumbles. "How do you even know them?"

"Joint middle and high school. So they've actually been here for two years already, being--them. And I've got them in after-school stuff. I'm the faculty adviser for the GSA, and Monty's in that, and I run the winter play. They do tech stuff."

"When's the winter play?"

"After Christmas break. You should definitely do it."

It feels so far. Only two months, but somehow, her life looks like a blank page that far in the future. She can't even figure out what she'll be doing next week, let alone after Christmas. It makes her brain fill up with static.

"I'll think about it."

Bellamy's at his desk, but there are a few kids in his room too, surprising Octavia. When Clarke knocks on the doorjamb, he jerks up, apparently engrossed in his work even with other people around.

"This is his room," Clarke tells Octavia, pointed.

"Oh, sh--hi," he says, smiling. "Give me a sec, guys. Keep going. Don't cheat, one of us will notice." He leans against the door, smiling at them, and his students are definitely watching. No wonder there are rumors about them; it's so obvious. "Hey, sorry, I forgot I had retakes I needed to do. They got delayed because I was out, so--can you hang out for a couple hours? I'm really sorry."

"I can take her home," Clarke offers. "I don't have anything to stay for today."

"You don't have to," Bellamy protests, at the same time Octavia says, "I don't mind waiting."

Clarke snorts. "You two are cute. I don't mind. I'll hang out on your couch, you can make me dinner to thank me for helping out."

"Is this you admitting I'm a good cook?"

"Or I'm just really lazy." She glances at Octavia. "Up to you. I'm going anyway, so if you want to be home, I'll take you. Otherwise, I'll see you tomorrow."

"If you really don't mind," she says, and Clarke bumps her shoulder.

"I really don't. Have fun with your retests."

"Thanks. Really." He smiles at Octavia. "I'll get you the bus information for tomorrow. Sorry, I was gonna just take you home, but--"

"It's okay. The bus sucks."

"True. See you guys later."

"This is probably why people think you're dating," Octavia observes, in the car.

"Yeah," Clarke agrees. "I assume so."

*

As much as it pains her to admit it, school really helps her settle in. As a teenager, she's pretty sure she's supposed to hate it, but it's such a relief, having something to do. Monty and Jasper take her into their social circle without question or hesitation, naturally as breathing. It's not a big group, just the two of them and their friends Monroe and Harper, with a bunch of their other acquaintances occasionally guest-starring. She joins the GSA because everyone but Jasper is in it, and joins the Latin club with Monty and Harper for good measure, so she has after-school stuff too. Even when she doesn't have any real reason, she still hangs around after school, because although Bellamy hasn't said anything, she knows he feels antsy about her being home alone. She tends to hang out in Clarke's room over her brother's, because when people hang out in Bellamy's room, it's usually because they either have actual homework or because they just want an excuse to check out Mr. Blake, and either way, it's awkward for her. Clarke's room is basically a haven for artsy kids who want to hang out and work, so it's always full of people.

Including Lincoln.

Octavia now knows that Lincoln is a junior, that he's on the wrestling team, but also really into art and poetry. He works on the literary journal and spends most of his free time either at practice or in Clarke's room, and that's not why Octavia spends so much time there, but it's a nice perk.

It's not like she had a ton of friends back in Baltimore. She tended to keep to herself, and people let her. She had some people she'd sit with, talk with, occasionally smoke pot with, but she hadn't been that upset about leaving them. There was so much else going on, she barely thought about it.

So school is nice, yeah. She has a social life, and, even more than that, she has some kind of map to the future. She and Bellamy have stuff to fill up their days, so he isn't worrying about her staying occupied, doesn't fret about every decision.

They get used to each other.

She's been living with Bellamy for just over three weeks when he says, "So, uh--Thanksgiving plans."

"I assumed you had some sort of thing with Clarke and Raven and Wells. Am I allowed to tell people that? There are still a weird number of people who care if you and Clarke are dating."

"Yeah, I usually do Thanksgiving with them," he says. "Wells does the cooking at their place. But if you want to do something with just us--"

"No, of course not," says Octavia. She sees Raven and Wells less than she sees Clarke, but they still come over for dinner on Fridays, and Raven has been doing stuff with her on weekends, taking her to the movies or teaching her important car stuff, like how to check the oil and change a flat tire. Wells has less of an idea what to do with her, but in an endearing way; he makes awkward small talk and is way too earnest.

If she called any of them, any time, they'd come, and it's nothing she's ever experienced before. Even when she had Bellamy, he was all she had.

"Thanksgiving with them sounds great," she says, and means it. "What do you guys do?"

"It's so traditional I can't even deal with it sometimes, honestly. Wells and Clarke grew up together, they always had the storybook Thanksgiving, turkey and mashed potatoes cranberry sauce and everyone dressing up and going around the table, saying what they're thankful for."

"Why don't they anymore?"

Bellamy considers. "So--they had the other kind of fucked up family, I guess. The kind where their parents were nice and around and loved them, but they were still assholes. Clarke's mom and Wells' dad worked together, her dad blew the whistle on their company for doing illegal shit, he got arrested and died in prison, there's a giant, shitty family rift."

"Is that why they're living in the middle of nowhere?"

"No one has to justify why they live in the middle of nowhere," he grumbles. "It's a valid life choice. But, yeah, I think that's part of why they came out here."

"So Wells makes a really fancy Thanksgiving dinner for the four of you?"

"The five of us now."

"And can I tell my friends what I'm doing for Thanksgiving?"

He groans, thumping his head back on your couch. "Your friends cannot seriously care if I'm dating Clarke. Your friends don't even know me. They aren't in my class. Why would they care?"

"They know Clarke. Monty thinks you're hot. I think it's just one of those things the whole school is kind of broadly interested in. You know, like if Nathan Miller and Bryan Farmer are still dating."

"They broke up," says Bellamy, absent. "You're behind on your gossip."

"Wait, really?"

"Not that I pay attention to this, but Bryan's in my fourth-period government class and I heard him talking to Katie Wong about it." He pauses. "Also, I'm not dating Clarke and your friends are creepy, but you don't have to lie to them about your Thanksgiving plans. That would be weird. Tell them we're having dinner with my friends."

"And Clarke."

"Clarke is one of my friends, yeah. It's not a sign we secretly want to date."

"Uh huh."

"Shut up," he says, with very little heat. "We don't need to invite any of your friends, right? I assume they have homes and families?"

"I assume so."

"Thank god." He wets his lips. "Do you, uh--we could come up with some traditions. If you want."

"What do you do for Christmas?"

"Same thing, basically. Hang out with my friends. I do the cooking for Christmas, though."

"That sounds really good."

There's a long pause, and he finally says, "Next year, we're going to up your standards."

"Sure," she says, and doesn't actually feel her throat closing up at the thought of next year.

That's nice too.

*

Monty, Jasper, and Harper come over to play video games the first day of Thanksgiving break. It's the first time she's had friends over, and she told Bellamy, but she's not actually surprised he forgot. He apparently takes break very seriously, in that he sleeps until noon and then comes into the living room shirtless and covered in stubble, only to discover his house is full of teenagers.

He rubs his face, like he thinks if he just closes his eyes, the teenagers will go away.

"Hi, guys," he says, when they don't. Harper and Monty are both openly staring at him. Monty might be drooling a little.

"Hi, Mr. Blake," Harper finally says.

"Yeah, uh, when it's vacation and you're on my couch hanging out with my sister, you guys can call me Bellamy. That's acceptable. I'm just going to--" He jerks his head, but someone knocks on the door before he can leave, and he winces. "Please tell me Zoe is showing up too."

"Nope," says Octavia, and goes to get the door anyway. It's Clarke, of course, because it's vacation and why wouldn't Clarke hang out over vacation? Of course she just decided to stop by without warning.

Clarke looks between Octavia, Bellamy, and the kids on the couch for a minute, before finally settling her attention on Octavia. "You guys are giving me a lot to process here."

"I told him I had friends coming over. I think his brain stops working once vacation starts."

Clarke glances down at herself; her jacket is unzipped and Octavia can see she's wearing a pair of very old jeans and a t-shirt that says Artists do it creatively. "Yeah, well, his brain is always pretty questionable," she finally says, shrugging her coat off. "What are we playing? I want in."

"Smash Brothers," Jasper says; he's staring at Clarke in much the same way Monty and Harper were staring at Bellamy. "You can sub in for me, I don't mind."

She sits down on the floor and accepts his controller. "Appreciated. And put a shirt on, Bellamy. There are kids here."

"Happy Thanksgiving to you too," he grumbles, but he's back in ten minutes wearing real clothes, and he insists on making everyone lunch, because that's how he is. He can't help it. And then he joins them for video games and trash-talks non-stop, laughing and teasing Clarke and acting more like the brother Octavia remembers than he has since she got here, young and stupid and a little cocky, on top of taking care of her.

Clarke flops against his side once everyone else has taken off. "So, how bad is this one going to be?"

"I was the one who walked into a bunch of students shirtless."

"I was the one who came over to your house while you were shirtless."

"You handled it like a champ, though."

Clarke yawns. "Yeah, I really reined in my incredible lust. It's so hard not jumping you in front of your sister and her three over-invested friends. I deserve a gold star for restraint."

"I was looking really hot."

"I'm the one who has to witness this, you know," Octavia mutters. "Why are you even here, Clarke?"

"It's vacation, I'm bored. Hanging out with my favorite siblings."

"Yeah, she basically lives here when we're on break. I should have warned you."

"I'm a perk," says Clarke. She pokes him in the side. "You should order pizza."

"Octavia should order pizza, I don't want to move."

"You're the worst adults ever," Octavia says, but when she holds her hand out, Bellamy puts his phone into it, and she thinks--this is a good day. This is one of the ones she'll remember.

They get dinner and Clarke falls asleep on Bellamy while they watch a movie. Octavia watches as he gets up slowly, picks her up and carries her off to his room, returns with a pillow and blanket for himself.

"So, she gets your bed, you take the couch?"

"She's a guest. Guests get the bed."

She'd always kind of assumed that adults reached a point where they understood relationships. That this utter failure to figure out how to be with another person was a teenage thing that people got over.

Then again, she remembers Bellamy at her age; he hadn't dated much, in part because of her. He'd had so much to do, since their mom didn't do it.

"It's not about me, is it?" she asks, soft.

"What?"

"It's not--that's not why you aren't making a move on Clarke, is it? Because I'm here?"

He rubs his face. "Jesus, no. Of course not. It's--"

She's never actually asked him about this before, and she's a little surprised to discover she has no idea what he'll tell her. He's never said he's in love with Clarke, but, honestly. He doesn't need to say it for her to know.

He leans back against the couch, closing his eyes. "I'd say it's complicated, but it's not. I'm just too scared to tell her."

"That's pathetic."

"I know."

"I thought she was your girlfriend," she admits. "When I got here. I asked her." She pauses. "I didn't just think that because of you. She'd say yes. If you ever asked."

"Thanks." And then, "It was a little bit you."

"Yeah?"

"Not--I thought it would be kind of unfair. Asking her to help out. And then she basically volunteered."

"She loves you." There's no question; she's sure. "She gave me her number the first day I was here."

"Yeah," he says. "Like I said, I know it's pathetic. I just think about doing something wrong, and--she's the first thing in my life that I feel like I never screwed up, you know?"

It feels like she's on the edge of something, some terrible fall. But she says it anyway. "You never screwed me up, Bell." He snorts, and she grips his arm, hard. This matters. "It wasn't your fault, what happened."

He lets out a shuddering breath. "I'm still sorry."

"I'm sorry too," she says. "But--that it happened, you know? I'm sorry our parents are assholes and I'm sorry Mom decided she never wanted to see you again. I'm sorry your dad wasn't better."

"He's a different kind of bad. He wanted me because--he cares about having things. Having people. I think when Mom left, it hurt his pride. And so when he found out he had a kid, he wanted me because he thought I belonged to him. And once he had me, he didn't care."

"Oh."

"It was just two years, and then I went to college."

"But it was your whole life," she protests. "It was Mom before that, and--" She swallows. "And me."

"You?" He actually looks distressed. "Jesus Christ, O, not you. Never you, okay? You're--fuck, you saved my life. If she hadn't had you, I don't know what I would have done. I finally had someone to--I had a family. The kind of family I was supposed to have. You're the best thing that ever happened to me."

She doesn't cry, but she curls around him and buries her face in his shirt, just in case.

They both end up sleeping on the couch, waking up to Clarke taking a picture on her phone.

"Sorry," she says, remorseless. "You guys are adorable."

Bellamy cracks his neck. "We're the cutest. Want me to try to teach you to make French toast?"

"If you insist."

When Octavia sees them next, they're in the kitchen, side-by-side, so close they're touching every time they move.

So stupidly obvious.

She goes to take a shower.

*

"I'm going to die," Octavia declares.

It's the week after Thanksgiving, and their geometry teacher has released the study guide for their final test of the semester.

She's been doing fine, academically speaking. Not getting straight A's or anything, but between Monty and Jasper taking her under their wing, Bellamy taking on history and Latin, Raven helping with science and math, Wells taking English, and Clarke having what she calls excellent test-taking skills, she hasn't really felt behind.

But this is a lot of geometry.

"Oh yeah," says Clarke, without looking up from her grade book. "We're all going to die. Death is inevitable."

"This is why Bell says he doesn't go to you for reassurance," Octavia says without thinking, and then winces when she remembers they're at school, in Clarke's classroom, surrounded by students. It's after hours, but still. There's a crowd anyway.

At least Clarke doesn't seem worried. "Some people find pragmatic realism reassuring."

"Why are you going to die, Octavia?" asks Lincoln.

The two of them still aren't exactly friends. They're on friendly terms, but they don't really see each other much, because she's a freshman and he's a junior, so they don't share any classes or anything, don't have many other chances to hang out. But he's in Clarke's room a lot, and he's always nice to her. They chat, sometimes.

She might have a small crush. Just a small one. It's honestly a relief; it's hard to feel numb when you have a crush. Whenever she's around him, her insides feel all lit up.

But it's not as hard to stop the numbness as it used to be. For the first few weeks, it was almost too much, talking to Lincoln, compared to everything else. But she's getting--better, she guesses. In her idle moments, her head doesn't always feel like static and snow. Her friends make her smile. She gets annoyed with school and homework. She likes Clarke and Raven and Wells.

Bellamy's too much too, sometimes, but in a different way from Lincoln. She still looks at him sometimes and feels resentful, not at him, not really, but about him. That she lost him, or maybe that they lost each other.

He doesn't like leaving her home alone, and it itches at her sometimes. She was alone so much before she came here, and she doesn't miss it, exactly, but she's not used to having someone who wants to know where she is every second of every day. And then she feels awful, because she's upset that her brother loves her and wants to make sure she's taken care of.

She shakes her head and smiles at Lincoln. "Geometry."

"Good cause of death," he says, smiling back. He gets up and comes to sit next to her, heat radiating off his side. He's so solid. "What's the problem? I'm not bad at geometry."

"The problem is that I started school here the last week of October, and I was taking algebra in Baltimore," she grumbles. "And now we've got exams."

"Yes, I'm starting to see the the problem. Well, let's see what we can do."

She startles, but she doesn't think it's too obvious. "You don't have to--"

"I like geometry, like I said. I'm surprised Ms. Griffin doesn't like it more. It's useful, for artists."

Clarke doesn't look up. Lincoln is her favorite, Octavia's pretty sure. Well, her favorite aside from Octavia herself. But she doesn't really count like the other students. "Shapes are useful. I don't care about cosines."

"That's trigonometry," he tells her.

"Triangles, which are shapes, which is geometry. QED."

"Go back to work, Ms. Griffin, you're not good at this."

Clarke rolls her eyes at them, but she does as she's told. Clarke's really the best.

"One of my brother's friends helps me out on weekends," Octavia says, truthfully. "You can paint, I don't--"

"I don't mind," Lincoln says. "Really. What are you worried about?"

They're so engrossed that they must miss the bell for the late bus, because Bellamy actually comes over to Clarke's room himself, which is practically unheard of. Octavia becomes aware of him when he clears his throat; she startles up to find him leaning in the door, arms crossed over his chest, looking about as intimidating as he can. Which is, admittedly, a lot of intimidation.

"It's after five, Octavia," he says, and hearing her full name feels like he's yelling at her, even though she's the one who told him not to call her O in the first place. She wants him to start again, but--it was easier to tell him not to than to tell him he can again. "Hey, Lincoln," he adds. "I think you missed the bus."

"Oh, I have a car," he says. "But thank you, Mr. Blake. I do need to get going." He gives Octavia a smile. "Let me know if you need any more help. I'm always happy to do what I can."

"I really appreciate it. Thank you so much."

"Like I said, I'm happy to do it. I'll see you tomorrow, Ms. Griffin, Mr. Blake."

Bellamy at least waits until he's gone to demand, "What's he helping you with?"

"Don't be an idiot," says Clarke, mild.

"Geometry," Octavia adds.

"Lincoln's the best."

"He's in my first-period AP US History class," Bellamy says, like this is somehow a bad thing. Like he's against the kids in his AP US History class, when Octavia knows they're his favorites. "He's a junior," he adds, which makes a little more sense.

"One of those asshole juniors who helps your sister with her geometry," Clarke agrees. "How dare he."

"I don't need your commentary on this."

"I think you probably do."

"I don't need either of your commentary on this," Octavia declares. She shoves her books into her bag. "Are we going? We can go. Sorry I got distracted. Studying. For my final."

Bellamy opens and shuts his mouth, and finally settles on, "You coming over tonight, Clarke?"

"Nope. Wells has a thing, so I'm doing Netflix and chill with Raven."

"I can't tell if you don't know what that means, or you and Raven have upgraded your relationship. Either way, rock on, have fun."

"Do you want to come, Octavia?" Clarke offers.

"You can't actually Netflix and chill with my sister," Bellamy protests. "Seriously, I'm drawing a line, Clarke."

"Fine, I'm offering her a girls' night so she doesn't have to hear you awkwardly lecturing her about boys. You know, if she wants."

"We might as well get it over with," Octavia says. "But I'll call you if I can't deal with him."

"As usual."

"You guys know I can hear you, right?" he grumbles. "Have fun possibly making out with Raven."

"Have fun being a weirdo. See you tomorrow, Octavia."

Once they're in the car, he seems to have calmed down, because what he finally says is, "I guess I just didn't think you were interested in dating yet."

"You're really making a big deal about me talking to a guy about geometry, you know. He's always in Clarke's room after school, when he doesn't have practice. Clarke's right, you're a weirdo."

"I remember being sixteen," he says.

"Yeah, you were a weirdo when you were sixteen too."

"I'm just saying. I guess we haven't really talked about, uh--"

"I know how babies are made, Bell."

"It's not the mechanics I'm worried about," he says, and his voice is more serious than she would have expected. "Sex ed sucks, and it's not like Mom was a good role model." She feels her jaw tighten, but Bellamy goes on. "I'm not saying don't do it, that's the whole problem with sex ed. It's all, here's how it works, but don't, because puritans and gross societal shit and--all this baggage. And that's fucking stupid. If you want to do it, you're going to, what we should be teaching you is how to know that you're ready, and how to be smart, and how to make good choices. For the record, I think you're too young," he adds. "But that's not my call. And I--" He opens and shuts his mouth, scowling.

She's surprised to realize she knows exactly what he's thinking. "It wouldn't be my first time," she admits, very soft.

She'd gone to some party over the summer, had sex with a guy because he was flirting and she was curious. It hadn't been bad, but it hadn't been good, either. It had hurt, and she knows whatever was supposed to happen for her didn't, but it was still kind of nice, to get it over with. The second time was a little better. There hasn't been a third, but she wants there to be. Eventually. Maybe not soon, though.

"Yeah," he says, just as soft. "I figured maybe. Look, I--" He sighs. "I just want you to be safe and happy, okay? Just because you've done it once or twice or--however much you do it, that doesn't mean you have to keep doing it. You should be--Lincoln's a good kid. But two years is a lot, when you're fourteen. Don't let him--"

"He's helping me with geometry." She pauses and then says, "I'm just a kid he knows, okay? It's nothing."

Bellamy snorts. "Sure. I saw you guys. I know flirting when I see it."

"Keep telling yourself that. How's it going with Clarke?"

There's a long pause, but finally he groans. "See if I ever try to talk to you about this shit again."

"Please don't," she says, but it's a little nice. It feels like she could talk to him, and he might not even be a weirdo about it. Once he gets used to it. "Thanks, Bell."

"I'll try not to be--me. About it," he finally says. "But you can talk to Clarke or Raven if you can't talk to me. We've got you."

"Yeah. I know you do."

*

Once December starts, she starts freaking out about Christmas, which she knows is pathetic. It's not like Thanksgiving wasn't a little weird, because--she hadn't celebrated Thanksgiving since her brother left, not really, and it was strange to be doing it again. But she knew how to celebrate Thanksgiving. They spent the day with friends; Bellamy and Raven insisted on trying to play football, which devolved into the two of them just throwing the ball at each other and yelling, Wells tried to teach her how to cook a turkey with limited success, and Clarke got drunk and cried about the dog show.

Christmas is harder, because there's so much more. It's not just one day, one meal. There are decorations and fairs and a whole holiday season.

There are presents too, which are the worst part, because how do you even know if you're supposed to get someone a present? Bellamy and Clarke, obviously, will get her presents, and so will Raven and Wells, so she needs stuff for them. Monty, Jasper, Harper, and Monroe seem pretty likely too. Lincoln's been helping her with geometry more, but it would probably be weird if she got him something. Despite Bellamy's continued fretting, Lincoln has given no indication of wanting to date her. So it would be really awkward, if she got him something.

Well, maybe just to say thanks. For the help.

She makes up her mind to ask Clarke about it, because between Clarke and Bellamy, Clarke is probably better at gift etiquette. She's rich, rich people know about gift etiquette. And she's less weird about Lincoln than Bellamy is, not that that's saying much.

"Hey," she says, the second Friday of December. "Can I come hang out with you tonight?"

"Oh, sure," says Clarke, surprised. "I was going to come over anyway, I don't have anything else to do. Did you ask your brother?"

"Not yet. I figured we could just go over to his room and tell him I'm ditching him. You weren't staying late, right?"

"Never if I can avoid it on Fridays. Give me a couple minutes to clean up."

Octavia helps, because she always helps, and they head over to Bellamy's room together. Unlike always, he seems to have noticed that the school day has actually ended, because he's freaking out.

"Bell?" Octavia asks, hesitant, at the same time Clarke says, "Wow, you're a mess."

"Shit, hi, you're here, thank god," Bellamy says, mostly to Clarke. "I accidentally deleted a bunch of grades, Raven's coming over to save me, but can you take O home? I'm really sorry, I'll buy you beer--"

"She was gonna come hang out with me anyway." Clarke leans over his shoulder, looking at the computer. "Do you need us to help? Can we help?"

"Like I said, Raven's got it. Just take my sister and make sure she doesn't die?"

"You know I can take care of myself, right?" Octavia grumbles. "She could just drop me off at home. I can survive unsupervised for days at a time," she adds, and then feels bad when he winces.

Clarke smiles at him, though, not even mocking for once. "It's okay, Bellamy. I've got her."

"Thank you," he says.

"Don't worry about it. Focus on your grades. Which will be fine, because Raven is an actual genius. She'll--" she starts, but Bellamy slides his hand into her hair, pulls her down, and kisses her before she can finish.

Octavia goes to close the door, both to give them privacy and because someone should be thinking about stuff like people walking by and seeing them. If they want to keep on being--no more obvious than they're being.

"Thanks," he says, husky, and Octavia turns back in time to see Clarke's surprise melt into a huge smile. "I appreciate--I appreciate you."

"Yeah," Clarke manages. "I'll bring her home after dinner, okay?"

"Cool."

"Good luck with your grades, that really sucks," she adds, and then kisses him again. Octavia's pretty sure it was supposed to be quick, which is why she clears her throat when it's really not.

"Yeah, uh--see you tonight," he says. "Raven can work wonders, probably. Eat vegetables, Octavia," he adds, like this will somehow restore his legitimate guardian status after he made out with a coworker in front of her.

He really is the best brother. "Thanks for the tip, Bell."

Once they're in the car, she puts her feet up on the dashboard and says, "So, I was going to ask you for advice, but you're probably useless now, right?"

Of course, Clarke doesn't miss a beat. "No, it's fine. I can carry on normal conversations when I'm thinking about making out with your brother. I do it all the time. Go ahead."

Octavia snorts. "Was that him asking you out, by the way?"

"It better be. If he doesn't want to date me after that, I'm going to murder him." She pauses. "And then I'll get you out of foster care, obviously. Don't worry. Me and Raven and Wells will adopt you."

"I wasn't worried. He totally wants to marry you."

Clarke ducks her head on a huge smile. "Good." Then she regains control of her expression, sobers. "But seriously, advice. I'm so good. Hit me."

"I'm stressing out about Christmas."

"Yeah? What about it?"

"I haven't really done much for Christmas since Bell left," she admits. "Mom would get me, like, clothes, but--she worked most holidays, and she just never really cared. And my friends didn't really do gifts or anything. So I don't want to screw it up."

"Okay, well, I'm pretty sure Bellamy doesn't care. But I assume you're getting him something anyway."

"Once I figure something out, yeah."

"Me and Raven and Wells are gonna bury you in presents, but you don't have to get us stuff. Does Bellamy give you an allowance or what?"

"Yeah, ten bucks a week. And he said if I needed more I should just ask and he'd see what he could do."

"So, yeah. Small stuff. You're a kid, no one's going to mind."

"What about Monty and Jasper and everyone?"

"I don't know. I used to just buy a lot of little things and wrap them, so if anyone gave me anything, I had something to give back to them. Maybe ask if they want to do a secret Santa? Then everyone's on the same page, and it's cheaper because you're just buying for one person."

"I knew you'd have better ideas about this than Bell."

She snorts. "Yeah, the first year we knew each other I gave him a present and he stared at it for ten minutes, left without saying anything, and didn't talk to me for two days, until he'd gotten me something too."

"And you were like, yeah, that's what I'm into?"

"I never said I had good taste."

"I was thinking about getting something for Lincoln too," she admits, soft. "But I don't want to be that pathetic freshman who's, you know."

"Yeah, I know. Go with food, maybe. Cookies are safe. Make a bunch, give them to all your friends. And then it's just like, oh, yeah, I made cookies, thanks for helping me with math."

She has to laugh. "You're really good at this."

"I am. And all my skills are totally wasted on your oblivious, dumbass brother," she says, with an over-dramatic sigh. "But at least I get to help you."

Clarke has a cute little house, bigger than Bellamy's place, so Octavia assumes they'll move in there eventually, instead of Clarke coming to live with them. It's nice to have a point of reference in the future that she's looking forward to without any clear idea of when will come; moving in with Clarke will happen eventually, and she's sure they'll get there.

Clarke isn't a great cook, but she's learned how to work with that, so they have spaghetti with red sauce, and some raw carrots, which Octavia dutifully photographs and sends to Bellamy, to prove that they're having vegetables.

Clarke finds some old ice cream for dessert, and Octavia finally lets herself say, "I'm glad my mom died."

As always, Clarke doesn't miss a beat. "Me too."

She has to smile. "Oh good."

"Seriously, I wish your mom hadn't been an asshole in the first place and just let you and your brother see each other. Or that she'd given him custody when he asked. But--"

"He asked?" It's not really a surprise, but--he'd never told her that in so many words.

"Yeah. I don't know the details, but he drunkenly rambled about it a couple times." She wets her lips. "He worried about you all the time. And now he knows you're safe, he's so much happier. And I'm pretty sure you're a lot happier too."

"Yeah, but--"

"You're allowed to be glad your life is better," Clarke says.

"She never hit us or anything. She didn't--it wasn't like that. She just didn't really want us."

"We really want you," Clarke says. "And I'm happy we get you."

She makes it sound so simple, but--maybe it really is. She had a crappy family, and now she doesn't. It's not how she would have wanted it to happen--she wishes Bellamy had just gotten her when he turned eighteen, like he wanted to. But she gets it now, and that's something to celebrate.

Bell's on the couch when they get home, with the cat curled in his lap. Octavia sits down next to him and asks, "Did you get your grades fixed?"

"Yeah. Did you have fun?"

"Yeah."

Clarke is lingering in the door, nervous, and Bellamy isn't looking at her, because they're both so obviously idiots. Octavia lifts the cat out of her brother's lap and stands herself.

"Cool. So, me and Atalanta are gonna go to my room and hang out, so neither of us has to witness something we can't unsee. Lock your door if you're gonna have sex. And don't forget condoms."

"Thanks for the tip," Bellamy says, but he does finally make eye contact with Clarke, even smiles a little. "You're a brat," he adds.

"Night, Bell."

Clarke's car is still outside when Octavia wakes up, and it's--nice. Nothing earth-shattering, not like winning the lottery or anything. Just nice. Comfortable.

The kind of good she could get used to. Nothing special at all.

*

Monty proposes a secret Santa before she can, a larger one than expected, because he has his own long-term, gift-based plan to date Nathan Miller, who is definitely now single and whom Monty knows from drama stuff. She doesn't ask Lincoln to participate, because he doesn't really know any of her other friends, but she's pretty sure she can do cookies for her actual friends on top of the secret Santa without it being weird, so she agrees to everything.

She draws Jasper's crush, Maya, who's kind of quiet, but likes art, so she recruits Clarke and they find some cheap but still nice charcoals. She gets Raven a Lego set and Wells some cute measuring cups, and she and Bellamy make a truly horrifying number of sugar cookies, which Clarke helps decorate. She hasn't figured out presents for them yet, but she still has time.

"These are too pretty," Octavia observes, looking over the cookies Clarke is done with. "Everyone's going to know you helped."

"Yeah, but all your friends know we're friends and are already convinced we're dating. Knowing that I helped with this isn't going to make them think that more. And if I didn't help, they'd probably think it was because we were trying to hide our relationship. I'm pretty sure there's nothing we could do to convince your friends we aren't dating at this point."

"If it didn't work before we were dating, it definitely won't now," Bellamy agrees.

"So, yeah, I'm gonna make sure your cookies aren't ugly. It's a public service." She puts the finishing touches on what is definitely a penis and hands the cookie to Bellamy. "That one's for you. Because you're a dick."

He snorts and leans in to brush his mouth against Clarke's. They're generally pretty good about PDA, keeping it infrequent and brief, but it mostly makes Octavia happy, honestly. Not the kissing, specifically, but they just seem so happy. She doesn't know how to disapprove of happy.

"Thanks, you're the best," he tells her, and it doesn't manage to sound like sarcasm at all.

Of course, Monty takes one look at the cookies and says, "Does Ms. Griffin come over for baking parties a lot?"

"You act like once people graduate college they stop having friends," Octavia says. "You know Ms. Griffin hangs out sometimes. Who else was going to help us decorate cookies?"

He bites the head off one of the snowman cookies. "You win this round," he says, with a grin.

"Maybe she's my FBI handler for witness protection, did you ever think of that?"

"No, and I'm honestly disappointed in myself." He slings his arm around her. "Merry Christmas. Thanks for the cookies and the ideas for complicated dating conspiracies."

She smiles. "Merry Christmas to you too."

Clarke claims to have something to do right after school, which Octavia assumes is just going to bug Bellamy with a made-up question so that she won't be in her classroom when Octavia gives Lincoln the cookies she made. It's sweet, mostly; Clarke's the best kind-of big sister she's ever had.

Lincoln always sits next to her now, even though she's done with her geometry studying and thinks the test went pretty well. They're definitely developing into friends at a good pace. They've got plenty of time.

"Here," she says, putting the bag of cookies on the desk in front of him. "Merry Christmas."

He looks surprised, but only for a second, and then his smile takes over. She can't help remembering Clarke doing the same thing, after Bellamy kissed her. The scale is different, but it still feels good.

"Thank you," he says. "I didn't get you anything."

"That's cool. I didn't help you out with geometry. And I was making a bunch of cookies anyway. The whole gifts thing is kind of new, so I'm starting small."

"Food is always a safe bet. But you don't have to thank me for the help. I was happy to do it."

"Too bad, I'm thanking you anyway."

He ducks his head on a laugh. "Well, I appreciate it. Do you have big plans for Christmas?"

There's no one else in the room, but she leans in close anyway, private. "Don't tell anyone, but I think we're just having Ms. Griffin over. Quiet, family Christmas."

Lincoln leans in too, smiling. "So, that rumor is true?"

"Well, they have other friends. They're coming over for dinner. But Christmas morning I think it's just the three of us."

"That's nice, though," he says. "I like quiet holidays."

"Yeah," she says. "I think I will too. What about you? What do you do?"

He grins. "Go to Nebraska and spend the holiday with approximately a thousand relatives."

"Wow, that sounds awful. I'm so sorry. Good thing I gave you the cookies to keep up your strength."

"Appreciated." He regards her, his expression soft. "I won't be around here as much after break."

"No?"

"Ms. Griffin makes me help with the play."

"Oh, yeah, obviously. She's making me help too. She's been really insistent. So we'll still see each other."

"Good," he says. "I thought I might have to work for it."

"No. I'd help you out."

When Clarke gets back, they're sitting close, sharing the cookies, and Octavia flashes her a thumbs up while Lincoln isn't looking. Clarke grins back, and, yeah. The best kind-of big sister she could ask for.

*

Clarke is asleep against Bellamy's side when Christmas Eve turns into Christmas. It's snowing outside, and the tree the three of them went and cut down and decorated with Clarke's dad's ornaments and whatever she and Bellamy liked from Target is twinkling in the corner. Atalanta is curled up in Octavia's lap, and there are really an obscene amount of presents in the apartment. Most of them are for her.

It feels a lot like Christmas.

"Hey, um," Bellamy says, soft and more nervous than he's been in while.

"What?"

"This isn't really a Christmas present, but it felt like a Christmas conversation. I figured this was, I dunno. The right time."

"Are we moving in with Clarke?"

He smiles, cards his hand through his girlfriend's hair, fond and gentle. "No, not yet. I figure I'll give her a couple more months to change her mind."

"Bell."

"I know, she loves me. I'm kidding."

It sounds like he really means it, like he's sure, and it's her new favorite thing, her brother knowing that people love him. "So what is it? You're being weird."

"You always say that." But he really is, this time. "Right now I'm, uh--you got put in my care because I'm your brother and I said I'd take you, but legally speaking, I don't have a ton of rights. But I was thinking I could maybe start paperwork for a legal adoption. If you're cool with that. It's a little more secure, I think? I don't actually--" His laugh is a little self-deprecating. "I don't know that much about it. But fostering sounds temporary, and I don't want you to feel like I might--"

"I don't," she says quickly. No matter what he's going to say, she knows he's wrong. She knows he's not giving her up. "I don't feel like that."

"Cool. Then it's fine," he says, and his voice is off. "I don't have to."

"No, I didn't mean it like that."

Even after two months, it still feels like they're having two different conversations. Like they're both afraid of giving too much of themselves away. Like Bellamy thinks if she knows how much he loves her, she'll freak out.

She doesn't know what she's worrying about in this conversation, doesn't quite understand the lump that sometimes sits in the put of her stomach, but she's sick of it.

"You could call me O again," is what she finally says.

He frowns. "What?"

"I miss it." She wets her lips. "I told you to stop because I wanted to be mad at you, but--I never really wanted that. And I'm not. Mad. Not at you. You can adopt me. But--I don't need you to do that to know that you're not giving me up again. I get it, Bell. I'm not--I'm not scared."

"Okay," he says, on a breath. And he knows what that means, he must. They both used to be scared all the time, of Mom's new boyfriends, of what would happen if someone found the drugs they knew she kept in the house, of the survivable life they had becoming an unknown, unsurvivable one. She'd thought Bellamy got away from it when he left, but he never did, because he never stopped being afraid for her.

And now she's warm and safe and happy. She has friends and school; she's going to do the play in the winter and try out for the track team with Monroe and Harper in the spring. Summer feels like something to look forward to, all this time she can fill up with whatever she wants, with things that make her happy.

She's not afraid at all.

He clears his throat, awkward. "So, yeah, I'm going to start on that. I think it's a good idea. Just to make it official. In case anything happens."

"Cool."

He pauses. "I'd hug you, but I don't want to wake up my girlfriend."

"You can hug me later."

"Yeah, but this is a moment, right? I wanted it to be a moment. I planned it. I worked really hard."

One of the presents under the tree for her brother is Adoption for Dummies. Not because she'd been thinking about this, trying to hint at it; it hadn't even occurred to her, that he might want to. It didn't bother her. Just because she saw it at the store and it amused her. She figured he'd get a kick out of it.

"Of course you did, dork," she says. But she adds, "It was a nice moment. I liked it."

"Wow. So much enthusiasm. Did that hurt?"

"Shut up."

He grins, and she grins back. "You know, if you don't go to bed, Santa won't come."

She gives the pile of presents under the tree a significant look. "I'm pretty sure we're good." But she stands and stretches, leans down to peck his cheek, because she can. "Merry Christmas, Bell."

"Merry Christmas, O."

It's going to be. She just knows it.